Off the menu

The Perfectionist: life and death in haute cuisine

Rudolph Chelminski <em>Michael Joseph, 512pp, £

It was an event that shocked France. On the afternoon of 24 February 2003, the chef Bernard Loiseau finished overseeing lunch at his restaurant, drove home for a siesta, and shot himself in the head. From the outside, his death made no sense. Loiseau, who was 52, had been at the top of his profession for more than a decade. His restaurant, La Cote d'Or (situated in the small town of Saulieu, Burgundy), had three Michelin stars. He was happily married with three young children and was highly regarded by his fellow chefs. Ever since his days as an apprentice, Loiseau had dreamed of joining the ranks of the greats of haute cuisine - of having his name mentioned in the same breath as Fernand Point, the Troisgros brothers and Paul Bocuse. By most reckonings, he had achieved this ambition. Why did he commit suicide?

In the weeks that followed his death, Loiseau's life was pored over in the media. Gradually, cracks began to appear. Business at La Cote d'Or had not been going well. While in part this reflected a general trend - the aftermath of 11 September 2001 was a tough time for the French restaurant trade, especially in the provinces - it was clear that other factors were also responsible. Part of the problem was Loiseau's cooking. He was a chef rooted in the classical tradition that had been pioneered in the 19th century by the likes of Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier. Loiseau established his reputation by developing a simplified, stripped-down version of this repertoire, which he dubbed "the cuisine of essences". His approach involved taking the ideas of other chefs and subjecting them to various lightening measures: deglazing pans with water instead of stock; thickening sauces using vegetable purees rather than butter or cream; cooking as many ingredients as possible at the last moment. His signature dish was a variant of the old Burgundian classic of frogs' legs with garlic and parsley butter. In his version, the legs were prepared so as to resemble lollipops, and arranged in a circle around dollops of parsley coulis and a puree made from garlic that had been blanched six times.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Loiseau's cuisine d'essences chimed with the prevailing climate of health consciousness, and he became a fashionable figure. Undoubtedly, his talent for self-publicity helped - as one guidebook put it, he was extremely mediatique. By the early years of the 21st century, however, the magic was wearing off. A new generation of chefs had emerged, one that prized novelty. Across Europe, young chefs were no longer interested in the staid concoctions of old-timers. Instead, they were striving to emulate the surrealist, laboratory-inspired inventions of the Catalan maverick Ferran Adria. These developments had a detrimental effect on Loiseau's reputation. In 2002, the Guide GaultMillet took the unprecedented step of downgrading La Cote d'Or by two points - awarding it a mere 17 out of 20. Potentially even more calamitous was the rumour that Michelin was thinking of stripping Loiseau of his third Michelin star.

Faced with such a threat, Loiseau could have tried to adapt his cooking style. Or he might have comforted himself with the thought that fashion is fickle: perhaps his time would come round again. As Rudolph Chelminski makes clear in his exhaustive and often entertaining biography, however, Bernard Loiseau was no more capable of adapting his approach than he was of coming to terms with no longer being top dog. His determination to reach the top, Chelminski shows, was tinged with desperation. Being one of the best was not enough; he wanted to be the best. Behind the Loiseau legend lay the grim reality, largely unacknowledged even by those close to him, of mental illness. Manic depression affects one in a hundred; 15 per cent of sufferers take their own lives. According to Chelminski, Loiseau's symptoms were "textbook". His prospects were never good.

The Perfectionist raises an uncomfortable question. Is mental illness a prerequisite for being a top chef? La Cote d'Or was open 364 days a year. Loiseau hardly ever missed a service. He worked 15-hour days continually for more than three decades. Such maniacal energy could be sustained only by the delusion that he was, or had a reasonable chance of being, "the best". In his kitchen, buoyed up by an adoring staff and by the daily bustle of activity, such a quest seemed realistic. But as soon as Loiseau left La Cote d'Or (as when, for example, he opened a restaurant in Japan), he fell apart. In the final months of his life, he started to accept that he wasn't the best.

The truth deflated him. As Chelminski writes: "He was like a souffle that had fallen." Shockingly violent though the end was, it must have seemed, to a man who had staked his life on the myth of his own genius, the most comforting option.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The nuclear fat is in the fire